The New Yorker ran a profile of Cliff Blezinski, designer of the game Gears of War, in a recent issue. I wasn't fond of the piece; in its zeal to show the artistic merit of the medium, it ends up casting Gears of War as a wistful meditation on the ambiguities of homecoming. Gears is a fine game, but it's no Rachel Getting Married. We're not doing anyone any favors by pretending that our smartly constructed mass entertainments are think-pieces. A sample of its routine overpraise: “The world in which the action takes place is a kind of destroyed utopia; its architecture, weapons, and characters are chunky and oversized but, somehow, never cartoonish. Most video-game worlds, however well conceived, are essenceless. Gears felt dirty and inhabited, and everything from the mechanics of its gameplay to its elliptical backstory was forcefully conceived, giving it an experiential depth rare in the genre.” Gears is pretty, to be sure, but “elliptical” is an incontestably generous descriptor for its narrative, especially when "cartooish" and "essenceless" lie a mere sentence away, readily at hand.
The article takes its title from one of its more effective passages: “Growing up playing games, [games designers] absorbed the governing logic of the medium, but no institutions existed for them to transform what they learned into a methodology. Gradually, though, they turned a hobby into a creative profession that is now as complex as any other. They have established the principles of a grammar of fun.” I like the idea of “grammar” as a metaphor for the practice of game design, if only because it accords so closely with my own sense of what makes games fun.
Sometimes I think that the grammatical form of games is essentially interrogative: games pose problems to us, and the fun comes from figuring out how we're going to solve it. It's a testament to the richness of modern game design that the question “how am I going to kill this dude?” has lost little of its original luster. I think this is because this query always points to a deeper question, which is (unexpectedly) more compelling than the first: “what are the rules of this world?” To me there is something elemental about the feeling of discovery that goes along with learning rules, because in disclosing its rules, a game also discloses a world to the player.
But this whole fun-as-the-discovery-of-grammar idea runs aground on an inescapable counterexample. Aside from creating the two greatest series in the history of games, Mario and Zelda, the designer Shigeru Miyamoto has also overseen the development of the Nintendo Wii platform and was the lead designer on Wii Fit. Simply put Miyamoto can lay claim to knowing more about video-game-fun than any other human being on the planet.
Stephen Totilo ran a great three-part interview with Miyamoto last week, and what I learned from Miyamoto is this: fun is not a form; fun is a flavor. When he was describing his design philosophy he made an analogy with cookery: “There are certain elements of cooking where if you’re able to find a very delicious ingredient... often times the chefs are more interested in finding the most delicious ingredients they can find and cooking those in a way that really highlights the inherent deliciousness of the ingredient. And that, I feel, is our job in game design.” As Robert Ashley once said, Miyamoto creates a world out of fun. they build an entire world out of jumping, like they did in Mario 64. This is also, I think, why so many Wii games have managed to create short, fun activities (your WarioWare model) but utterly failed at what the other consoles excel at: creating cohesive, compelling worlds.
That “how does it move you?” tagline from the ads isn't all marketing cant. It's a guide to Miyamoto's philosophy of game design. I wrote a while back about how the joys of Nintendo's games are irreducibly kinaesthetic, and I think that the company's recent path shows their fundamental commitment to thinking of fun as a bodily event, something that happens to you when you pick up the controller. Nietzsche wrote that “we listen to music with our muscles,” and it's a description that works just as well for the kind of art that Nintendo creates: closer to music, or poetry, than to literature. (N'Gai Croal hit upon much the same idea when he wrote that we understand games with our hands.) (This is why Sony went to wrong with the Sixaxis motion control on the Playstation 3: they took the input device without understanding the design philosophy that goes along with it; as a result their games fundamentally lack the immediacy of their rivals'. In their defense, Boom Blox is to my mind virtually its only successful third-party implementation on the Wii itself.)
The near-absence of Nintendo's imprint from the holiday game season has been a curious phenomenon to me. Wii Music looks to be a misstep; it seems that the fun of Rock Band is equal parts music and movement, and Wii Music only realizes the latter. But when I look back on the games I've enjoyed the most this fall I keep coming back to Pixeljunk Eden, a game that is the quintessence of Miyamoto's ideal. You can't play Eden without participating in the momentum; it's the fundamental contagiousness of its motions that make it so compelling. This isn't grammar, but Miyamoto reminds us that fun is more than syntax.